This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.
It’s really remarkable the kind of stories you can tell with Batman. The character has a remarkable and innate flexibility, lending him to a diverse bunch of genres. He can do mystery, suspense, adventure, horror, drama, action, crime and many more besides. Joe Lansdale’s script for Read My Lips does an excellent job demonstrating the wonderful flexibility of Batman as a character, telling a witty, off-beat noir story… with a dummy as the villain.
I have a massive fondness for comic book writer Alan Grant. The creator established himself on Judge Dredd, but also worked on the Batman comics during the eighties and nineties. He was eventually given his own spin-off showcase book, Shadow of the Bat, and he remains one of the more recent defining influences on the world of Batman. Even in the context of Batman: The Animated Series, Grant’s The Last Arkham can be seen as a heavy influence on Dreams in Darkness, and the final episode of The New Batman Adventures, Judgement, owes a considerable debt to Grant’s work on Two-Face.
It remains a massive shame that more of Grant’s work hasn’t been collected, at least in English. There was a nice Spanish-language collection, but no British or American release. Grant’s work on the title was memorable for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most obvious was he work with the villains. In fact, Shadow of the Bat was established to allow Grant to develop and work with Batman’s iconic selection of bad guys. Grant didn’t just explore established villains, he created some wonderful high concepts of his own.
While none proved quite as popular as Bane or Ra’s Al Ghul, Grant did introduce some wonderfully eccentric characters to Batman’s already impressive selection of bad guys. He created Victor Zsasz, the serial killer seen briefly in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. He also created Cornelius Stirk, a character who feasted on human hearts. He had a wonderful knack for crafting memorable one-off bad villains, with Sartre “the suicide freak” being my favourite one-off Grant creation. However, for the purposes of this review, he created the Ventriloquist.
A new crime gang is sweeping Gotham, with well-planned and brutally-orchestrated heists that leave the police confused. The mastermind behind the crime wave is Scarface, a sinister hair-trigger tempered gang boss. There’s only one slight problem. Scarface is a ventriloquist dummy. He is worked by Arnold Wesker, a mild-mannered middle-aged spectacled gentleman who seems to have no control over the actions of his alter-ego.
It’s a ridiculous premise for a villain. Joe Lansdale’s script acknowledges this. “Don’t put words in my mouth!” the crime boss protests when his operator corrects him on the pronunciation of the word “premonition.” Towards the end of the episode, we’re treated to the hilarious sight of Wesker’s puppet trying to crush a radio transmitter with his feet. There’s a sense that Lansdale’s script acknowledges the inherently insane central premise. Even Alfred muses, “You’ve had your share of odd opponents, sir, but Scarface takes the biscuit.”
However, that’s the charm of Lansdale’s script. There’s a wonderful sense of fun about it. In fact, the opening sequence seems like an affectionate shout-out to The Amazing Spider-Man, when the goons hijack the profits from an evening’s fight. With three mob goons, the bad guys immediately call to mind the Enforcers from Spider-Man, with the brutish Rhino standing in for Ox. (And Rhino himself serving as something of an affectionate reference to anotherSpider-Man bad guy.)
The script allows Lansdale to have a bit of fun with noir conventions, playing off conventional hard-boiled crime dialogue. Scarface mumbles about getting Batman fitted for a pair of cement shoes, while the first interaction between Batman and Rhino is charming. “Who you lookin’ for, Bat-breath?” Rhino demands. “First guess is you,” Batman responds. “Don’t get wise with me,” Rhino warns him. “I may not like you!” Bruce laments, “You’re breaking my heart, Rhino.” (After the confrontation, a cop muses, “Guy like that, I’m not so sure a bullet would stop him.”)
It’s witty, it’s fun and it’s well-written, which is a large charm of the episode. Lansdale seems to realise that an absurd villain like Scarface affords him the opportunity to play with the conventional tropes, and to subvert expectations a bit. So we get rather wonderful revelations, like the way Batman sets up one of his “appearances” to Commissioner Gordon. (“Have pity on an old man’s blood pressure!” Gordon begs.) We also discover, rather hilariously, that Bruce studied ventriloquism with Zatara. You know, just in case.
And yet, like so many of the best episodes of the series, it works because it plays that light-hearted absurdity off something a bit darker and a bit more complex. Like so many of Batman’s bad guys, Arnold Wesker is pitiable beneath his ridiculous gimmick. “He doesn’t tell me anything,” Arnold pleads to Batman. “Not his plans, not where he hides the loot. I swear, I’m just a flunky. I know nothing.” As Bruce discovers, it’s the truth, making it all the more disturbing.
Like Two-Face, Scarface represents a counterpoint to Batman’s dichotomy – the mild-mannered Bruce Wayne and the strong-willed Batman. Like Two-Face, Scarface is that idea perverted. The relationship is so unhealthy it’s practically abusive, with two halves of one personality so perfectly isolated from one another that they can converse amongst themselves. There’s a creepy moment at the end of the episode, when Batman labels Wesker as his mole inside the organisation.
Scarface turns on his operator, pointing a gun at Wesker’s head. Would he have pulled the trigger? Bruce’s batarang stops us from finding out, but it’s a wonderfully intense and harrowing moment, thanks to both Joe Lansdale’s script and Boyd Kirkland’s direction. I honestly think that Read My Lips elevates Wesker as a Batman adversary – perhaps not to the same degree that Heart of Ice did for Mr. Freeze, but it’s close enough.
There are lots of other nice touches as well. I like the way that Scarface’s goons just sort of embrace the craziness, because they’ve figured out that his insanity is actually quite profitable. “Sorry boss, he’s new,” they apologise for the new recruit, who made eye contact with Wesker rather than the puppet. “He don’t know the rules.” After Scarface leaves, and the newest member starts to worry about the sanity of his colleagues, they assure him, “He’s really a genius, Scarface is.”When he suggests they mean the Ventriloquist, they correct him.
I like the idea that ordinary goons in Gotham realise that their employers are completely nuts, but that they go along for the money. It certainly explains why criminals would work for bad bosses like the Joker or the Penguin – you have to figure that the pay-off is absolutely massive. Sure, it carries an increased likelihood of being killed by your boss in a fit of rage, or of being poisoned or thrown off a high building, but criminals don’t seem to be the most forward-thinking of individuals. I like that Lansdale’s script touches on the idea.
Shirley Walker gives the episode a wonderful feel, creating a soundscape that seems initially like an affectionate throwback to all sorts of classic thrillers, but then morphs into something decidedly weirder as the show progresses. Once Scarface is revealed as a puppet, the music becomes a curious blend of a conventional (almost classical) gangster soundtrack and a more decidedly Batman style background music.
Read my Lips is a great little episode, and a wonderful illustration of how Batman offers the chance to put a decidedly unique spin on a familiar genre. I think it’s safe to say that Scarface is a fairly unique take on a pulpy villain archetype, and Batman: The Animated Series does an astonishing job working with the character, striking the perfect balance between hilarious, creepy and a little bit tragic. It’s a potent cocktail, and it’s mixed almost perfectly.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | Alan Grant, art, batman, batman animated series, Bruce, ChristopherNolan, comic book, dc animated universe, Freeze, List of Batman animated episodes, New Batman Adventures, Scarface, vhs, Victor Zsasz, zatara